Anna O’Sullivan




Playing second fiddle to the Bollywood dream 

India’s Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world, offering the tantalising lure of fortune and fame in a country where 220 million people live below the poverty line.

MUMBAI is where Indians come to get rich. With the average wage here three times the national average, the streets are bulging with the hustle of touts, cabs, people, markets and beggars, all engaged in a mad scramble for rupees.

Smack-bang in the middle of this chaos lies Bollywood; the dream-like land of opportunity where one can sing, dance, fall in love with a girl – but never kiss her – and accumulate enough wealth to escape the suffocating poverty surrounding them. Bollywood produces around 800 films each year, with its masala cocktail of action, comedy, romance, drama and melodrama attracting many of the 14 million daily Indian cinema-goers.

While Bollywood remains the mainstream powerhouse, it is only responsible for around half of the nation’s entire box office takings. Many different regions boast their own style of filmmaking, together forming India’s rich film tapestry. In contrast to the formulaic themes of Bollywood, Tamil cinema and the New Wave films of Bengali cinema are two very popular examples of a more realistic style of film that appeal to both local and international audiences.

The Indian film industry is big business. Posters advertising the latest movies are plastered on the streets across the country, with vendors flogging the latest pirated DVDs and gossip columns filled to the brim with the exploits of the stars. Recently, SixDegrees had a taste of the Bollywood dream working as an extra for Friends & Company, the newest blockbuster of superstar Shahid Kapoor.

Filling the need

“We require 20 westerners between 5:30 pm until 5:30 am. You will have make-up and will be fitted for costumes,” the extra scout excitedly explains, his rosy cheeks wobbling as he talks. “You will be fed and receive water and will be paid 500 rupees (around seven euros).” With no large cameras allowed on set, a quick visit to a corner store ensures that a single use camera is safely in my pocket to capture the action.

In a city where the furthest extremes of life are on display on a daily basis, the bus ride to the film set is an extravagant show for its western passengers. Cars speed recklessly down the wrong side of the six-lane road in order to beat the horrendous traffic jam. We pass the unfortunately named Good Luck Restaurant as a man in a sparkling Playboy tee stands flamboyantly in front of a decrepit apartment block.

“Breaking News: Now you can drink and drive!” screams a huge billboard advertising an energy drink. A temperature gauge in the car next to us reads 27 degrees – it’s now 8:05 pm. A paramedic puffs on a cigarette in the ambulance to our right as a group of men continue jackhammering the pavement in front of S.N.O.T. Women’s University.

After three and a half hours, the bus finally arrives on set, its excited contents spilling out onto the footpath. The entrance of a hotel has been converted to an airport arrivals area, with a crew of around 100 milling about trying to look important. Standing outside, an extra from Toronto reveals his proud Finnish roots. “Paskahousut!” he exclaims.

After an hour, we are finally called onto the set. We join a number of Indian extras who are clad in the uniforms of flight attendants, captains and customs officials. No sign of make up or costumes for us though, as we are positioned behind the four main actors playing out the scene. We are to be the western tourists in the background of the scene, wearing the same clothes that we’d normally travel in. Not too much of a stretch then. Some fill a taxi, some carry bags and others simply walk behind superstar Kapoor and the main actors, who are busy taking money from a shady gangster. We have arrived!

“Without work, life has no point”

In between takes a young German extra waxes lyrical on life. Her head wobbles, accompanying an Indian accent acquired from working as a volunteer teacher in Calcutta. A tall, gangly hippy extra comes over to chat, a mess of stained teeth and sunken eyes. Sporting a thick French accent, he claims to be from northern India; his tale is sad and confused. Completely paranoid that he can’t return to Europe, he equally detests life here in India.

“Everything is so slow here, how are they going to do one film?” he asks no one in particular. The sight of him successfully passing through customs during one take is something that is difficult to imagine ever occurring in real life.

A lady in full Indian dress bearing the name tag “Mary Roberts” passes by, as a security guard chastises some westerners for taking photos. Maybe it’s not ok to snap away after all. Kapoor preens himself in front of a mirror held by his assistant.

While the westerners are busy goofing around between shots, the Indian extras here are taking the whole process very seriously. Some of the lead actors rudely brush past the westerners, pushing them out of the way. It’s in real contrast to the behaviour of everyday Indians, who are ever so polite.

After some time not much has changed, and everyone is a little tired and disappointed that their Bollywood dreams of dancing and costumes are vanishing. Take after take is shot, with no end in sight. It’s a mildly comical scene as people scurry about, trying to get their face on camera. As the director halts the action to chat with his actors, the apple-cheeked extra scout comes over to cheer things up.

“You are still the prettiest here, even if you’re tired. We’ll make you a big star,” he proclaims to the young German girl.

Get into Bollywood rhythms with bhangra orchestra.




Shava, Finland’s foremost 

Fri 19 March Peltolammin Saluuna, Tampere www.suomibhangra.org

And that’s a wrap

At 4:00 am it’s the final take of the movie. Everyone is hugging as a huge cake is brought out. A crew member’s T-shirt reads: “Work is the curse of the lower class.” The security guard is out of sight, signalling a frenzy of photo flashes. A crew member rudely grabs the Toronto Finn’s arm and tells him off. Soon we are piled back into the bus, clutching our fresh 500 rupee bill. Kapoor drives past in a huge four wheel drive. At this time of morning Mumbai’s streets are clear, with the whole trip back taking only 30 minutes.

So that’s that. Maybe I shouldn’t be expecting any follow up phone calls.

There’s an excited and vaguely nostalgic hush when I head down to collect my processed photos from the single use camera. It’s a true analogue experience. But the shop owner’s face is grim. He begrudgingly hands me my blank negatives containing nothing more than a handful of brown smudges. Mumbai’s heat and sunlight had proved too much during the life of this disposable camera and had ruined the film. Oh dear, I have no on set photos for this article.

Such is the curse of the working class.

If you ever find yourself watching Friends & Company, keep an eye out for a bright yellow and black striped Marimekko shirt, conspicuously hovering in the background during the airport scene.

James O’Sullivan